Companies like 3M and Dupont have been known for a long time as innovators. They put manufactured chemicals like per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, on the map.

This group of chemicals includes perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and the related chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS).

PFAS have been used since the 195’s in a range of common household products and in some specialty applications. These include in the manufacture of non-stick cookware; fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection applications; food packaging; some industrial processes and surfactants; and in some types of fire-fighting foam.

Like many breakthrough innovations, however, we have subsequently learnt there can be harmful effects and many chemicals over time have been banned.

In 1995, the Governing Council of the United National Environment Program (UNEP) called for global action to be taken on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) defined as “chemical substances that persist in the environment, that bio-accumulate through our food chain and pose a risk of causing adverse effects to human health and the environment.”

Following this, the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) and the International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS) prepared an assessment of the 12 worst offenders, known as the dirty dozen. By 2004, 128 parties and 151 signatories globally (including Australia) signed onto the Stockholm Convention on POPS and agree to outlaw nine of the dirty dozen chemicals, limit the use of DDT to malaria control, and curtail inadvertent production of dioxins and furans.

Unfortunately, POPs work their way through the food chain by accumulating in the body fat of living organisms and becoming more concentrated as they move from one creature to another. This process is known as “biomagnification.” When contaminants found in small amounts at the bottom of the food chain biomagnify, they can pose a significant hazard to predators that feed at the top of the food chain. This means that even small releases of POPs can have significant impacts. And seeing as how POPs are in literally thousands of products, their cumulative effect is now becoming a serious problem.

Although scientists have more to learn about POP chemicals, decades of scientific research have greatly increased our knowledge of POPs’ impacts on people and wildlife. For example, laboratory studies have shown that low doses of certain POPs adversely affect some organ systems and aspects of development. Studies also have shown that chronic exposure to low doses of certain POPs can result in reproductive and immune system deficits. Exposure to high levels of certain POPs chemicals – higher than normally encountered by humans and wildlife – can cause serious damage or death.

POPs can be deposited in marine and freshwater ecosystems through effluent releases, atmospheric deposition, runoff, and other means. Because POPs have low water solubility, they bond strongly to particulate matter in aquatic sediments. As a result, sediments can serve as reservoirs or “sinks” for POPs. When sequestered in these sediments, POPs can be taken out of circulation for long periods of time. If disturbed, however, they can be reintroduced into the ecosystem and food chain, potentially becoming a source of local, and even global, contamination.

In 2003 the Queensland government stopped purchasing fluorinated Aqueous Film Forming Foams (AFFF) along with other types of foam such as protein based forms for firefightin. In July last year, they introduced a total ban on the use of PFAS in firefighting foam after it became clear the historic use of firefighting foam at industrial facilities and airports was damaging the environment, economic values and potentially human health. Queensland is the first state or country known to have taken this stance.

So what does this mean?

First of all, it means that most other Australian states will probably follow suit. Many governments stopped using PFAS in firefighting foam a long time ago, but with POPs now a major problem in the environment, it’s only a matter of time before all governments ban PFAS use not just in firefighting foam, but in all products. And let’s face it, many products such as carpets, surfactants and furnishings in the built environment still contain a range of POPs. On top that, many fire extinguishers in buildings still contain PFAS.

A recent three-day Environmental Management of Fire-Fighting Foam Policy Implementation Seminar in Brisbane, hosted by the the Palaszczuk Government, aimed provide information and guidance on the environmental management of firefighting foam. It featured Australian and international subject-expert speakers and gave some 200-plus delegates insight into the many solutions to address the legacy of PFAS.

Dr Stephen Miles, Minister for the Environment and Heritage Protection and Minister for National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef opened the three-day seminar emphasizing that Queensland’s PFAS policy requires that any existing stocks of foams containing legacy PFAS are withdrawn from service, and similar products phased out and replaced as soon as practicable with more sustainable alternatives.

Dr Erika Houtz formerly of the University of California at Berkeley and now with natural and built asset design and consultancy firm Arcadi, one of the developers of the scientific method Total Oxidisable Precursor Assay (TOPA) that revealed hidden fluorinated organics content of foams, wastes and contaminated materials, shed light on techniques for improved PFAS identification and characterization.

“The management of PFAS contamination related to firefighting foam usage is an important global issue and a pressing issue within Australia,” Houtz said. “Significant technological ingenuity is required to adequately characterize and clean up PFAS-contaminated land and water and to develop and assess appropriate replacements for existing foam stocks.”

Houtz and other speakers, including Dr Jimmy Seow – an Adjunct Professor at Curtin University lecturing on emergency management and HAZMAT response and Research Fellow at HLP University Malaysia – provided a comprehensive update on the state of the science around PFAS contaminated land management to ensure that all stakeholders could effectively address the human health and environmental concerns around PFAS contamination.

The legacy issues we are dealing with from a health perspective were made very real when Victoria firefighter Mick Tisbury shared how he as a firefighter had been soaked in firefighting foam with PFAS over the years and how he now has high levels of PFOS in his bloodstream.

“No doctors or health professionals knows how this will ultimately affect my health or that of my firefighting colleagues,” he said. “What we do know though is that it’s got to get out of all products. There should be no excuses. We don’t want anyone dying from this stuff.”

Tisbury urged the gathering to take immediate action to change to fluorine free foams for firefighting.

“This is not something theoretical – this is a significant health issue that needs urgent attention by everyone in our community,” he said. “We as firefighters are out there doing out bit to protect the community. We know the CFA and MFB have fluorine free foams – it’s about time everyone else did the same.”

A national gathering of regulatory agencies will be hosted by the Victorian government next month to further clarify issues, address consistency for policy provisions and seek co-operation on waste movements and disposal.